JONAH: AN INTERVIEW
by Hugh Wreisner
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ANNOUNCER: We are very privileged to have with us today the prophet, Jonah; one of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament, famous for his journey through the sea inside a whale. Sir, I hardly know how to address you. But having re-read the Book of Jonah recently, preparing for your visit, perhaps " Jonah, son of Ammitai" is the proper form. Is that correct, sir? JONAH: You may call me Jonah. Ammitai was my father's name but I doubt that means anything to you or any of your listeners. Plain "Jonah" will be fine.
A: Well, thank you. And welcome, "Jonah". J: Thank you, sir. And thank you for not mentioning the song. A: The song? J: Yes, you know (singing) "Jonah he lived in a whale. Oh Jonah he ... it's an American song. A: Yes, I know. But you object to that song? J: No. The song is fine. It's just that they always kid me about it. It's the first thing anyone mentions. Whenever I'm introduced to someone they say, Oh you're Jonah!You made your home in a fish's abdomen. : . . A: Are you perhaps offended by a light, humorous, joking treatment of sacred things? J: Oh great God of heaven and earth, No. It's just that of all the things that I did, and that happened to me, and that are written about to the book, that is just one incident . But it's the one thing people seem to remember about me. And it makes me look like some sort of fairy-tale character. A : Hmmmm. J: I suppose some people think the Book of Jonah is some sort of very early science-fiction. A: A fantasy. J: Right. And then of course they miss the whole point. To get the whole point you have to get the whole story. A: Ah, I see. Well I think it would help us to get the real message of your story by just going through it and asking you a few questions about some of the more puzzling and obscure parts. J: Fine. Good. A: Well then to begin with, how did you decide to become a prophet? J: I didn't decide at all . You don't decide to be a prophet. God just picks you.That's the way it is with all the prophets. He picks you out and says you're going to be a prophet and that's it. You're a prophet J: In my case he just spoke to me one day out of the blue and said, "Go to Ninevah and tell them that their wickedness is known to me". A: What did God mean by 'their wickedness'? J: Well.... A: Was is clear, did you understand that at the time? J: Oh sure. All the regular crimes and terrible things that go on in a big city. Stealing, murder rape, corruption in the government, lying cruelty, the wealthy people bleeding the poor people, the poor people cheating the rich people. All of that. A: How did you feel when God picked you out to help correct all this? J: I felt rotten. A: (laughs). But weren't you pleased and honored to be chosen by God himself to be his messenger? J: No t It was awful. Well just imagine: Here I was , a nobody-in-particular in a small town; and all of a sudden I'm supposed to take a long trip and walk into this Great Big City and say, Hello everybody. God sent me to tell you that he's displeased with you and if you don't change your ways at the end of 40 days he is going to destroy all of Ninevah. A: (laughs) J: Ninevah was an enormous city . A: Yes. The book mentions it took three days to walk across it. J: Yes. I don't know if it actually, literally took three days, but it was very big. At the time it seemed to me easily as big as New York or London would seem today. A: You felt intimidated? J: I was scared of the whole business. I was sure I would make a big fool of myself, probably be thrown in jail or something. And anyway I didn't think he'd really do it. A: (confused a bit) What? J: That God would really destroy them, whether they repented or not. He's too kind. A: So you felt you had no real obligation to carry out God's directions? J: I felt I had a very serious obligation. I knew I had to do it, but I just....... couldn't you know? A: And your solution was to run away from God? J: Yes. A: You boarded a ship for the city of Tarshish. Did you think that God would not find you there, or would not know where you were or that . . . . . J: Oh no. I wasn't really thinking. You know how it is. You have something that you have to do, but you somehow just can't bring yourself to do it, and so you're in this bind. So you run. You hide. You just try to get out of the whole situation. I just went down to Joppa and looked for a getaway ship. They had this one going to Tarshish. That was afar away as I could think of so I just bought a ticket and got on board. A: And then your real troubles began. J: They sure did. A: First came the great storm at sea. Would you tell us about that? J: Yes. Well it was a weird kind of storm. Extremely violent. And it wasn't really the season for that sort of thing. The whole thing was very peculiar. I was sleeping when it started. It came up very fast.... these huge waves . . . . really smashing that boat. And of course the crew was terrified because it really seemed that the ship was going to break up. They threw the whole cargo overboard to lighten the ship, hoping that would help. And they were all praying ...... A: They prayed to Yahweh? J: Oh no. They prayed to their own gods. You see these sailors were from all over the world. They prayed to whatever gods they believed in. Whoever could help. But no help seemed to be coining; the sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they came down and woke me up. A: Yes, you mentioned you were sleeping when the storm carne. How could you sleep with thin violent storm raging around you? The ship tossing and all sorts of noise and confusion I would imagine? J: Well I had stayed up quite late talking with some of the sailors and we had too much to eate, too much to drink.. You know how it is. In a situation like I was in you want to talk to somebody, get a little sympathy . A: (A little embarrassed) Hmmmm. And you had told them you were running'; away from Yahweh. J: More or less, yes. But when they woke me up they wanted to know more about that.So I explained that I was a Hebrew, and that I worshipped Yahweh, and that Yahweh was the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. A: And they threw you overboard. J: Well not immediately.They were all really fine fellows. You see we all sort of know , instinctively, that the storm was a punishment or a warning. A: A punishment. Of course there was a guilty party on board. J: Yes. Their consciences were pretty clear, and they, had been praying a long time, and things hadn't gotten any better, so they figured maybe Yahweh could help. A: And he did? J: Well he did eventually. I prayed, but nothing happened. So then they decided that we'd all draw straws to see who was causing all the trouble. And guess who got the short one! A: (smiling) Jonah, son of Ammitai. J: Right. A: And then they threw you overboard. J: Well no, not yet. We talked.....And understand this is all going on with the mast snapping overhead, the deck creaking under your feet , and everybody soaking wet. The storm was getting worse and worse all the time. So I told them the way to calm the sea was to throw me into it. A: You were ready to sacrifice your life for these strangers? J: Well I knew the storm was my fault and if they got rid of me the sea would be calmed and they would be safe. If I had stayed on board we would have all been drowned. A: And they agreed to do this, throw you into the sea J: Well they didn't want to. They tried getting nearer the shore to get me off safe. But it was really getting bad so fully they all prayed to Yahweh, hoping they were doing that right thing, and then they threw me overboard. A: And you couldn't swim. J: I could swim. I could tread water. But I couldn't swim to the shore from the middle of the sea. A: And did the storm cease, the sea become calm, once you were off the ship? J: Yes. Immediately. Within a couple of minutes. Not a glassy calm, but fair and fine with a good wind for sailing. A: The ship didn't try to rescue you after the storm was over J: No. When the storm stopped so suddenly, that was proof to them of Yahweh's power. They waved to me as they sailed off. And I think they were praying for me too. A: And perhaps their prayers were answered.Which brings us to the whale, and air you've already mentioned you'd probably rather not discuss that. J: No I didn't say I won't discuss it.I like to discuss it air long as it is part of the whole story. A: Well.... J: Let me put it very briefly and simply. Here I was in the middle of the sea, about to drown, and God sent help. He saved me. A: The whale. He sent the whale to swallow you and cast you up safe on the shore after three days and three nights. J: Well it was some sort of sea-creature.Notice the Bible doesn't say "whale it says " a great fish". I think it might of been a whale because it's the biggest thing that swims in the sea. Remember that I was almost hysterical with fear. All I remember clearly is that I was in danger of dying and I prayed to God as hard as I could and ended up safe on the beach. That's the point. I was in terrible danger , by my own fault, but Yahweh loved me and forgave me and took care of me and saved me. A: The whale, or the fish, really did swallow you though? J: Oh yes. A: And you were inside the whale for three days and three nights. J: Well that's a figure of speech. We say " three days and three nights" like you say " night and day". It means a long time.I don't know how long it actually was. I'll tell you this though: It seemed easily three days and nights to me! A: And when you were safe on land again you were not too far from Ninivah. Is that correct? J: Yes. About a day's trip. And once again God spoke to me. A: What did he say this time? J: Same thing: "Go to Ninivah and preach to them as I told you. A: The same message. The same command from God. And yet this time you carried it out instead of running away. Why was that? J: Well I always knew I had to, really. This time I had a clearer sense of how serious he was about it. And I had seen how much he loved me and what he could do... and really would do .... to take care of me. So I figured just trust him and do what he says. A: And so you went to Ninevah and preached God's message to the people there. Could you tell us about that. J: I got to Ninevah and just walked through the *W gates and started to preach the message. As I said, it was a very large city so there were plenty of places where I could gather a crowd. A: You said earlier that you were afraid of making a fool of yourself. J: Yes. I didn't want to be laughed at or get into any sort of trouble with the police. A: And did you? J: What? Get into trouble. No. No they were very receptive. As you know the whole city repented. You see I started preaching on street corners and in parks.... places like that. And to a very short time I was contacted by some officials from the king. A: What was your reaction to that? J: I was scared.. A: This frightened you. J: Yes, sure. I thought, well this is it. They've got me now and I'll be thrown is jail, or at least thrown out of the city. A: But that didn't happen? J: No. No, what happened was I got a private audience with the king. A: Somehow I find it hard to picture you 'advising' the king like that. Giving him Yahweh's ultimatum, " only forty days more", threatening the destruction of his city. J; Well that part was not so difficult. The king was easy to talk to. He was a very intelligent man. A very good man. A: And how did he react to your message? J: Well we talked for a long time. He sat and listened very quietly, very intently, to what I had to say Then when we were all finished he sort of stared at me. . . . gazed.... searching my eyes, trying to decide whether I was telling the truth or not. Then finally he got up, very slowly, and rang this bell to call his tides. I was really frightened. You know, he didn't say anything and I wasn't sure what he was going to do. A: You thought he was angry J: Well I didn't know. But what he did do...I'll always remember this, it was really impressive .... He had on this long, heavily embroidered robe. Very rich looking. And when all his men had come into the room he very slowly and, you know.. meaningfully ... stripped off these royal clothes and wrapped himself in some very coarse, cheap sackcloth. A: The clothes of mourning, repentance. J: Right. Then he scooped up a handful of ashes from the fireplace and sort of sprinkled them over his head. And than he tat down in the ashes that were spilled out there on the heaxth. A: Did the king's men understand what this meant? J: Oh yes. Than he explicitly made that proclamation and ordered them to get it cut to the people as quickly as possible. Every single person in Ninevah, even the children, was ordered to put on sackcloth, to go on this very rigorous fast (they weren't even supposed to drink water) and If they were doing anything wrong they were to stop it immediately. And they were supposed to start praying as hard as they could to Yahweh. A: I've always .. .. J: Even the animals were supposed to fast. A: Remarkable, yes.I've always found it puzzling and a little far-fetched that all these people In Nfnevah who were not Hebrews. who did not believe in Yahweh, would suddenly undergo this great moral change and take on the considerable physical. difficulties of the fasting and so forth. J: Well it was remarkable. They followed the king's lead of course. And in his attitude there was quite a bit of " who knows, let's try it, it can't do any harm". But essentially what happened was that I gave them God's message: "Repent, change your ways or in 40 days you will be destroyed". and they... believed it, turned to Yahweh. I certainly didn't think they were going to do it. A: (genuinely interested and puzzled) No, and when they did you weren't pleased. J: I was furious! A: Yes, I know. The goal of your whole project was beautifully achieved and yet 'you chose that time to rage at God for being compassionate to these people. I don't quite understand that. Could you explain your reaction? J: Well, not really, no. I just didn't understand what Yahweh was trying to do. When I look back and think about it, even I can't see how I could have been so stupid. I suppose basically it was a case of being entirely wrapped up in my own self. My worries. My troubles. A: You didn't worry about the people of Ninevah? J: Oh I didn't give two hoots about the people of Ninevah.What I really wanted was to climb the hill and watch the city get destroyed. You know, I thought there would be this terrific blast, flames, smoke, buildings crashing. All that. A: But of course that didn't happen. J: No. They all repented. They had all turned to God.. A: (with an "Aha I" inflection) And you felt cheated. J: Yes. I felt I had gotten nothing out of the whole thing. I ended up out there under a blazing hot sun with the wind tearing at me and I just ... despaired. A: It says in the book you were so overcome you begged God for death. J: That's right. It was, well, like coming to the end of your rope. It seemed to me that life was so full of troubles and disappointments and uncertainties and pain and frightening things .... I just didn't see any point in going on. And I really did, I prayed to him. I begged for death. A: But this was the turning point for you. J: Yes. It wasn't until I hit that really low point that I began to understand what he'd been trying to teach me.See, it finally dawned on me how much God loves us.All of us, everybody. How he wants to help. He said, "Can't I feel sorry for all these thousands of people who don't know their left hand from their right?" A: And .... J: Wait. And he said a very tender thing. " Can't I feel sorry for these people, not to mention the animals." You see. Not only the people. Even the animals. He loves animals. He loves all the little things, you know, in a special way. The samll things.... helpless... babies and puppies and people who can't fend for themselves very well. Poor people. He truly loves them. All he really asks is that we love him back. And love each other. A: And that's the message of the book. J: That's the whole thing. A: And so your anger toward God is gone? J: Oh yes. A: And your despair? J: Yes. Long ago. A: And how do you feel about God now? J: Now? Oh I love him. A: Thank you.